When we say green food, most people automatically think of matcha. Well, you are wrong, folks.
The greenest food is Pandan. Chlorophyll is not just deep emerald green but also healthy for you. ( * )
With ingredients like Pandan leaves, eating your veggies can be a form of delicious, sweet cake.
This South or Southeast Asian grassy stuff is a rare delicacy in most places. It is especially hard to find in Europe and many other parts of the world.
With such a one-of-a-kind taste, replacing it seems like the 8th wonder of the world.
So, how can you do it? According to chefs, there are some surefire ways to substitute pandan leaves.
We gathered all of them, so let’s see what we have!
What are Pandan Leaves?
Before we get into the best pandan substitutes, what exactly is this delicacy?
After all, we can’t fully substitute an ingredient unless we know it inside and out.
Do you know what vanilla, coconut, pandan leaves, pecans, and milk have in common?
Acetyl, which gives them a highly addictive flavor. ( *)
Boldly fragrant pandan leaves make you scratch your head. Are they sweet, savory, vanilla, or nutty?
There are so many questions, and the answer depends on the heating process and other ingredients.
They are grassy, deep green, and grow everywhere as a type of screwpine. But how do we put them to use?
How to cook with Pandan leaves?
Pandan leaves are wildly versatile, especially compared to western ingredients. As in Western cuisine, there is no such thing as one ingredient to use in all sweet and savory recipes.
How is this even possible? After all, pandan leaves are not some kind of magic potion.
They simply share a secret with some of the tastiest foods on the planet: balance. These grassy staples have just the right amount of sweet, savory, fatty, and nutty tones.
However, to get this taste, we must heat them. The aroma molecules have to pop for this complexity of flavors.
With some expertise, they can be used in juices, smoothies, cakes, puddings, creams, curries, wraps, ice cream, cupcakes, cocktails, and some meaty rice dishes.
This is a wild list, so let’s find alternatives accordingly.
The Best Pandan Leaves Alternatives
Substituting pandan leaves in every possible recipe is not an easy job. These long-leaved herbs add both color and aroma to every meal.
The desired taste is a sweet, nutty, slightly grassy scent with a trace of vanilla. Aside from a unique aftertaste, we also need pigments to add a splash of green to dishes, just like pandan leaves do.
1. Matcha Tea
With its similar heavy-green color, dreamy green matcha appears to be a perfect replacement for pandan leaves.
It’s used in everything from beverages and desserts to cakes and even rice. Even so, be careful with matcha, as it has a high caffeine content and can be bitter in large quantities.
Sadly, it lacks the nutty, vanilla undertones that pandan leaves bring to dishes. The solution is a dash of vanilla and hazelnut or almond extract.
But in other ways, matcha is superior to pandan leaves or extract, as it is high in nutrients and antioxidants, whereas pandan is low in both. ( * )
Another powerful difference is the level of sweetness. Pandan is sticky sweet like glue, while matcha is sort of bittersweet.
To completely replace pandan leaves with matcha, you’ll need a lot more sweetener.
The next pandan substitute, however green, appears to be an ill-fitting one at first glance.
2. Collard Greens
Collard greens, like cabbage, are eaten in every kind of dish except in sweets. You’re more likely to have them as salads or fibrous sides.
Without the hard stems, they are neutral in taste. This makes them suitable for making nutrient-dense smoothies, drinks, or savory dishes.
Replace pandan leaves with collard greens to bring a similar texture and greenness to your recipes.
The only exception? Sweets, because their overpowering earthiness makes them useless for desserts.
After boiling and salting, add them to any savory dish for a similar taste and texture to pandan leaves.
Our third pandan substitute is not so versatile but packs THAT flavor.
When you imagine ginger‘s spicy edge, it doesn’t seem like an ideal replacement for pandan leaves.
However, the essence of pandan is somewhat peppery, and pickled, gaudy ginger can give you just that.
Plus, the longer you cook ginger, the more mellow it becomes. Because it is sweeter, fresh and young ginger is an even better substitute for pandan leaves.
Cooking helps smooth and elevate the flavors, but burnt ginger quickly becomes bitter.
And after this narrowly applicable pandan leaf substitute, the next one is a fit for any meal.
4. Pandanas essence
An obvious choice, pandan essence is widely accessible in Asian specialty stores throughout most of the world since it is a common ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine.
It works perfectly as a pandan leaf substitute in every case. There is no better substitute for any savory or sweet dish.
Pandan essence has so much adaptability, with a hint of coconut, walnut undertones, and creamy vanilla with a peppery edge.
Choosing a pandanas essence will also give your dish a beautiful green color, just like fresh leaves. But be warned: pandan extract is amazingly powerful, even more so than fresh pandan leaves. You probably only need a drop.
Pandanas essence contains sugar, so taste it before adding it to savory dishes. Accordingly, Malaysian sweets have plenty of pandan essence.
To offer a wide range of pandan leaf substitutes: the following one is widely available and used in salty recipes.
As a basic kitchen seasoning, almost every household has some cilantro in the pantry.
We can use it as a substitute because it perfectly mimics the peppery, greeny taste of pandan leaves.
Naturally, pandan leaves cannot be substituted for cilantro in sweet recipes. It doesn’t fit that flavor profile.
But there’s another advantage: you can get it anywhere, and you can garnish with it as well.
We recommend it for salads, risotto, soups, curry, sauces, or any other savory dish that otherwise calls for pandan leaves. It’s an especially good match for Thai and Mexican dishes.
The next item on our list was once a real health craze. Celery juice, it is!
6. Celery Leaves
Celery juice with leaves and all, is made to benefit your health rather than please your palate.
However, we enjoy culinary delights. Luckily, celery can also serve that purpose. As a pandan substitute, stick to savory meals.
It can be added to any dish because they have a distinct but not overwhelming flavor, green flesh, and sweet-spicy tones.
Particularly great for risotto, soups, smoothies, and salads. A bold seasoning helps to bring out the flavor of this medicinal herb.
However, the mild taste is not always the best choice. Let’s see a bolder-tasting alternative!
7. Kewra essence
Kewra sounds foreign but can be found at any nearby Indian market. There is a watery or oil-based extract; both are frequently used in desserts.
This essence is from the same pandanus plant that pandan leaves come from. However, kewra is derived from the blossom rather than the leaf.
The oil-based extract is typically more concentrated, whereas the water-based one is milder. Both are frequently combined with green coloring to provide a similar tint to your food.
So much so that it can seem too green or unnatural. This is one of the reasons it is used in desserts but not savory dishes.
Kewra has floral tones similar to rose water, but without the nuttiness. If you need that extra hint in your recipe, some hazelnut extract can help.
The following pandan substitute is well-known, but for different purposes.
8. Green tea & Hazelnut
Tea seems like a long shot for a pandan leaf substitute. But pandan has tea-like tones, so much so that it is sold as tea when dried.
When replacing pandan, you can go for jasmine or green tea. Both have unique tones, one is floral, and the other is more earthy.
With a dash of vanilla and nut extract, tea can perfectly mimic pandan leaves in both savory and sweet things.
Jasmine tea leaves are sometimes used to add a floral taste to curries and desserts with some coconut. Similarly, green tea has a more bitter aftertaste, and you can choose between the two depending on your recipe.
The best part is that tea has far more nutrients and health benefits than pandan leaves.
But for our next pandan substitute, healthiness was not a priority.
9. Banana Leaves
Banana leaves are not intended to replace pandan leaves as an ingredient. But anytime you want to wrap food in to pandan, banana leaves will do the trick just as well.
Wrapping food in leaves is common in many culinary traditions, including in Southeast Asian. They are also very appealing and add some aroma to the dish.
Both banana and pandan leaves help keep food temperatures, either hot or cold, and protect them from contamination.
They are also an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic plates. Smoked banana leaves can add even more depth to savory meals wrapped in them.
Let’s wrap up our pandan substitute list too!
Many claim there is no such thing as a perfect pandan leaf substitute. But, given the flavors and texture, it is not impossible either.
They have a green, leafy, and peppery flavor with a hint of vanilla, nuttiness, and a lingering coconut aroma. That is an incredible variety of flavors.
Surprisingly, even when frozen, they retain their fragrance. However, in most parts of the world, they are scarce.
Replicating pandan flavor needs several ingredients in most cases. You want something green-tasting, peppery, floral, and vanilla, with a touch of nuttiness.
Do you want to know our absolute favorite substitute? Matcha powder, almond extract, a hint of vanilla, coconut water, and pickled ginger.
Some chefs also use some parsley with mint to get that grassy flavor.
Whichever you choose, make sure it fits the recipe and flavor profile.